Scientific Integrity: An Oxymoron at the White House By Dr. Rick Bayer
When partisan politics trumps scientific integrity in policymaking, democracy suffers. Concerned about the misuse of science and technology, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS, www.ucsusa.org) has issued Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science.
The conclusions are damning evidence of a presidential administration that routinely distorts and censors fact, trusting true science only when it conveniently supports established policy.
Our government authorizes vast amounts of research and scientific analysis—environmental assessments, economic data, public health research and military intelligence. Society relies on the accuracy of this data, and on the integrity of researchers to report undistorted information.
The UCS report shows indisputable patterns of suppression and distortion of science by high-ranking political appointees across numerous federal agencies. This involves climate change (global warming), air pollution and mercury emissions, plus misinformation on reproductive health, abstinence-only sex ed, HIV/AIDS, breast cancer and airborne bacteria. Misrepresentations of evidence on Iraq’s “aluminum tubes” and manipulation of science regarding the Endangered Species Act and forest management are also detailed.
The report documents massive efforts to manipulate the government’s scientific advisory system to prevent the appearance of expert advice. These efforts include abolishing technical advisory panels in areas of nuclear weapons and arms control because they do not conform to the Bush political agenda. The report describes industry-influence in choosing a prevention panel for childhood lead poisoning; a non-scientist in a senior science-advisory role to the President, and other under-qualified candidates in health advisory roles including the FDA’s Reproductive Health Advisory Committee and the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. “Political Litmus Tests” are required for a workplace safety panel and for a scientific advisor at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The Bush administration often imposes restrictions on what government scientists can say or write about sensitive topics. In this context “sensitive” applies to issues that might provoke opposition to the administration’s policies.
UCS offers suggestions for restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking including executive orders to “prohibit further censorship and distortion of scientific information from federal agencies and put an end to practices that undermine the integrity of scientific advisory panels.”
The UCS urges scientists to encourage others to get involved. We, as citizens, must tell elected representatives that censorship and distortion of scientific knowledge are unacceptable.
Censorship and distortion of science in policymaking impacts Oregonians daily. 1: The Bush administration willfully ignores the science showing marijuana is medicine so medical marijuana patients are still threatened and arrested when complying with state and local laws. 2: The Oregon Board of Medical Examiners has a record of distorting science and threatening doctors who attempt to mitigate patients’ symptoms with controlled drugs. 3: Attorney General Ashcroft has an ideological vendetta to overturn our Oregon Death with Dignity Act even though Oregon voters passed it twice and the scientific data shows no evidence of misuse; indeed, the data shows improved end-of-life care for Oregonians. 4: The White House sits on the sidelines while children are poisoned with lead paint dust in Northeast Portland because industry fears that childhood lead poisoning may become a new class-action lawsuit, like asbestos. 5: Because of political pressure from religious extremists, children’s health is threatened with “politically correct” abstinence-only dogma instead of scientifically accurate biology and medicine.
Bush didn’t invent suppression of science for political expediency. History shows many authoritarian regimes threatening excommunication or worse because scientists discovered the earth went around the sun or the world was not flat. Our problem is that Bush’s administration is taking it to the most dangerous level.
While the UCS can act like Paul Revere warning us about danger to our democracy, we the people must actually exercise our power by voting this fall. Americans don’t want clear-cut forests, pollution, global warming, poisoned children, religious or prohibitionist ideology interfering with medical care, or children being taught bogus science that places them at risk. Reinvigorating scientific integrity in policymaking will be a big step toward reinvigorating political integrity itself.
Rick Bayer, MD is board-certified in internal medicine and a fellow in the American College of Physicians. His is co-author of Is Marijuana the Right Medicine For You? A Factual Guide to Medical Uses of Marijuana.